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Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Reformation: Can Social Scientists Save Themselves?

By Jerry Adler
Pacific Standard: The Science of Society
Originally posted April 28, 2014

Here is two excerpts to a long, yet exceptional, article on research in the social sciences:

OUTRIGHT FAKERY IS CLEARLY more common in psychology and other sciences than we’d like to believe. But it may not be the biggest threat to their credibility. As the journalist Michael Kinsley once said of wrongdoing in Washington, so too in the lab: “The scandal is what’s legal.” The kind of manipulation that went into the “When I’m Sixty-Four” paper, for instance, is “nearly universally common,” Simonsohn says. It is called “p-hacking,” or, more colorfully, “torturing the data until it confesses.”

P is a central concept in statistics: It’s the mathematical factor that mediates between what happens in the laboratory and what happens in the real world. The most common form of statistical analysis proceeds by a kind of backwards logic: Technically, the researcher is trying to disprove the “null hypothesis,” the assumption that the condition under investigation actually makes no difference.


WHILE IT IS POSSIBLE to detect suspicious patterns in scientific data from a distance, the surest way to find out whether a study’s findings are sound is to do the study all over again. The idea that experiments should be replicable, producing the same results when run under the same conditions, was identified as a defining feature of science by Roger Bacon back in the 13th century. But the replication of previously published results has rarely been a high priority for scientists, who tend to regard it as grunt work. Journal editors yawn at replications. Honors and advancement in science go to those who publish new, startling results, not to those who confirm—or disconfirm—old ones.

The entire article is here.